Japanese Noh actor lifts veil on ancient theater

Mon Mar 9, 2009 2:42am EDT
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By Chisa Fujioka

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - An actor, his face covered with a white oval mask, shuffles across the stage, pauses, then slowly raises an arm clutching a gilded fan as a flautist plays a haunting, tense tune.

This is Noh, a Japanese theater genre that has portrayed spirits and their interplay with humans since the 14th century, but which many people have chosen not to see because of its slow moves, monotonal chants and lengthy choruses in ancient prose.

Actor Yoshimasa Kanze, 38, is one of a handful of performers trying to turn Noh from an esoteric art form into one everybody can appreciate by helping audiences understand its subtleties with workshops, trendy posters and refined performances.

Kanze's efforts began when he was in college, just as he was about to follow his father's footsteps in a career as a Noh "shi-tay," or main, actor.

"I got together with other traditional art performers my age, and we asked ourselves if people would come and see us in 20 years' time," he told Reuters in an interview at Tokyo's Yarai Noh Stage over a cup of green tea.

"At the time, our fear was that they wouldn't, unless we did something to promote ourselves."

Noh, sometimes referred to as "Japanese opera," involves 20 or so men on a pavilion-like stage, including actors, a flautist, three drummers and a chorus of around eight.

One of Noh's distinct features is the use of masks carved out of cypress wood, which covers the main actor's entire face when portraying a woman, deity, demon or a young or elderly man.   Continued...

<p>Noh actor Yoshimasa Kanze wearing a traditional mask and wig performs about malt whisky with his troop Kamiasobi at a whisky merchandising event in Tokyo in this February 10, 2008, file photo. REUTERS/Issei Kato</p>